What examples of figurative language are in the story "The Gift of the Magi?"

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William Delaney | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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An excellent example of O. Henry's figurative language in "The Gift of the Magi" can be found in the paragraph in which the author describes Della's pride in her beautiful hair and Jim's pride in his pocket watch.

Had the Queen of Sheba lived in the flat across the airshaft, Della would have let her hair hang out the window some day to dry just to depreciate Her Majesty's jewels and gifts. Had King Solomon been the janitor, with all his treasures piled up in the basement, Jim would have pulled out his watch every time he passed, just to see him pluck at his beard from envy.

This is wild exaggeration, of course, but O. Henry often uses exaggeration for humor and other effects. Imagine bringing the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon into that humble neighborhood! Imagine making King Solomon the janitor in their own building!

Here is a more conventional simile:

So now Della's beautiful hair fell about her, rippling and shining like a cascade of brown waters.

Here is an example of a metaphor, which O. Henry describes as a "hashed metaphor."

Oh, and the next two hours tripped by on rosy wings. Forget the hashed metaphor. She was ransacking the stores for Jim's present.

It is a hashed metaphor, or what grammarians would call a mixed metaphor because the hours could fly on rosy wings but would trip by on nimble feet.

Here is an simile which conveys both Della's feelings and an impression of how she looks after sacrificing her hair to buy her husband a platinum watch fob.

“If Jim doesn't kill me,” she said to herself, “before he takes a second look at me, he'll say I look like a Coney Island chorus girl.

We don't know what Coney Island chorus girls' hair looked like, but we can imagine. They must have been among the first American women to start cutting their hair short. In the 1920s it would become the fashion and would be commemorated by F. Scott Fitzgerald in his short story "Bernice Bobs Her Hair." 

Finally, O. Henry uses extreme metaphorical language when he calls Della and Jim the magi, that is the three biblical kings who brought rich gifts to the infant Jesus in Bethlehem.

 But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest. Of all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi.

"The Gift of the Magi" is O. Henry's best known, best loved story. This is largely because of the kindly, affectionate hyperbole in his figurative language. He makes these poor people seem rich and even distinguished because of their touching love for each other. Della is rich in having such a husband, and Jim is rich in having such a wife. 

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